A FAMILY from Cornwall appeared before Haverfordwest Magistrates Court on Monday in the biggest illegal scallop fishing prosecution ever brought by the Welsh Government.

Forty-four-year-old Mark Powell, skipper and part-owner of the Golden Fleece II (GFII), pleaded guilty to 14 counts of dredging for scallops in the protected Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in Cardigan Bay, and 14 counts of failing to submit the required declaration for landing a catch.

The value of the illegally caught scallops was in the region of £428,000. The offences could attract a fine of up to £1million.

As co-owners of the purpose-built scallop dredger – making them jointly liable for offences by the boat’s skipper – Andrea Powell, Lisa Powell and Clinton Powell each admitted one count of illegal scallop dredging and one count of failure to submit the required declaration for landing a catch. The charges related to “various dates” between October 2011 and March 2012.

The trio were initially charged with all 28 offences, but these were withdrawn.

James Subbiani, prosecuting on behalf of the Welsh Government, said the court was becoming “increasingly familiar” with offences relating to illegal fishing.

“Cardigan Bay SAC is protected under European legislation as an area in need of high protection, due to its bio-diversity,” said Mr Subbiani. “There is an area that is “boxed off”, and it is illegal to dredge in that area. There is also an area where scallop dredging is allowed, as a concession to the scallop industry.”

Mr Subbiani told the court the GFII’s tracking system had been deliberately switched off when it entered Welsh waters because “what happened next” would not have been possible otherwise.

A marine enforcement patrol spotted the GFII in an area closed to fishing. The vessel was taken to Milford Haven port, and when Powell was asked to turn his tracking system on to show he wasn’t fishing illegally, he said: “I can’t do that. I’m not doing anything that the other boats aren’t doing.”

The vessel’s GPS chart plotter confirmed Powell had been “extensively” dredging in an illegal area.

Mr Subbiani showed magistrates a document summarising the 14 trips Powell made to Cardigan Bay, and the percentage of time he spent in the prohibited area. By his fourth trip, his vessel spent 92.75% of its time in the SAC.

The GFII’s gross earnings over the period covered by the offences was over half a million pounds.

“The vast majority of the scallops caught by Powell in that time were fished for illegally,” said Mr Subbiani. “There was deliberate and pre-meditated illegal fishing.

“In terms of catch value, this is the single biggest fisheries case that the Welsh Government has ever brought.”

Magistrates said their sentencing powers “were not great enough” for the case, and sent the matter to Swansea Crown Court for sentencing on April 4. The Powells were released on unconditional bail.